Residents’ ability to speak to a member of York’s council staff over the phone “must not be allowed to become a luxury”, a councillor has said.
Waiting times for the council’s customer centre have rocketed over the last three years, with some people now waiting more than two hours to speak to someone.
Pre-Covid the service was performing well, said head of customer and exchequer services David Walker, but the departure of many experienced staff after the lockdowns and an earlier decision not to fill vacancies in the team has left remaining staff struggling to cope.
Holgate Labour councillor Cllr Kallum Taylor is one such resident who has waited more than two hours.
“Some people just want to speak with human beings,” he told a council scrutiny committee. “This is fine and must not be allowed to become a luxury -yet City of York Council is heading that way.
“Regardless of whether we end up mastering online customer services, there will always be people who will never be digital.”
He added: “It represents our front door – and the first and in too many cases the last time many people will bother engaging with us. A bad experience here reflects badly on the entire organisation, including us as councillors.”
Committee chair Cllr Jonny Crawshaw said he believed much of the problem had been “self-inflicted” by the council, due to failings in its digital residents’ parking scheme resulting in lots of calls to the council and the decision not to employ staff in order to invest in the council’s online help offering.
He argued that the council had gone “too far, too fast” in taking staff off the phones.
Struggling to cope
Mr Walker said the department had been under pressure to make savings, with the customer centre having around 15 fewer members of staff than before the pandemic.
He and other councillors pointed out that other councils, as well as public services like the police 101 number and the phone lines of private companies, were all struggling to cope because of wider shortages in the labour market.
Remaining staff members have faced abuse from residents and Mr Walker was keen to stress that his report about the service was not intended as a criticism of people working there.
He added: “Staff within the team work exceptionally hard – they’re very dedicated.
“I can’t afford to lose any more staff. They are fantastic people – they work very hard.”
The call-back service and the webchat service are currently switched off to allow staff to focus on the phones, but Mr Walker said these could be switched back on at a later date.